Hawaii’s top three candidates for governor took on many issues — from the expected to the improbable — during Tuesday evening’s debate.
They discussed who has been fiscally responsible and who hasn’t. They talked about social safety nets. They addressed prison overcrowding and GMO labeling. They even bounced around the idea of whether the University of Hawaii needs an expensive new sports stadium and how to fund it.
But it remains unclear whether specific policy stances will drive voters on Nov. 4 when they choose between Democrat David Ige, Republican Duke Aiona, Hawaii Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemann and Libertarian Jeff Davis. (The Libertarian, who lags in a Civil Beat poll, was not invited to take part in the debate.)
The hourlong debate, hosted by KITV News and Honolulu Civil Beat, revealed an interesting undercurrent about who the three candidates do and don’t want to be politically tied to.
In one of the most Democratic states going back decades, Aiona didn’t exactly tout his party affiliation. And unlike candidates in many places who might talk up their eight years as lieutenant governor, he clearly sought to avoid blame for controversial decisions made from 2002 to 2010 by his former boss, Gov. Linda Lingle, on topics like the state budget and the Hawaii Superferry.
While Ige, like his party, has long enjoyed the support of labor unions, he also needs to woo some voters who believe the state’s powerful unions can act as a roadblock to necessary changes to improve things like the state hospital system.
Unlike Aiona, Ige’s party affiliation is a primary selling point — as was clear from a political ad that ran on TV immediately following the debate, highlighting that he is “David Ige, Democrat for Governor.” But he tried to fend off his opponents’ efforts to link him to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, the Democrat he crushed in the primary by a two-to-one margin.
The peculiar dynamics offer an opening for Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor and one-time Democrat. He told viewers during the forum that he was the best choice for anyone who is fed up with the state’s Democrats and Republicans and their tired political techniques.
The candidates’ affiliations and allegiances came to the fore when they had an opportunity to directly question each other.
Ige opened with a question directed at Aiona, prefacing it with how the Republican “learned a lot from Gov. Linda Lingle” and underscored how the state budget is the “most critical instrument of change” for government.
“There have only been two times in the history of the state of Hawaii that we’ve failed to balance the budget and we ended in deficit — the last two years of the Lingle-Aiona administration,” Ige said. “How can the people trust you with taxpayer dollars when you couldn’t balance the state’s checkbook?”
Rather than embrace a Republican who was elected twice to the position he is running for, Aiona started out by distancing himself from Lingle.
“First and foremost, it should be noted that my input in regards to many of the initiatives and programs with Gov. Lingle was just that — it was about input, it was about learning, it was about listening,” he said. “Ultimately, it was Gov. Lingle who made the decisions in regards to budgets and programs, and the accolades go to her, as well as the criticism.”
Aiona pivoted, saying that during the past four years when Ige has chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the state increased spending by over $1.2 billion and increased taxes by more than $800 million. He pointed out that the overspending could put Hawaii in the red by 2016.
Ige didn’t respond directly. Instead, he brought up extreme measures that the Lingle administration took to balance the budget. “They stopped paying bills,” he said, adding that the administration withheld the public’s tax refunds for months and put off $300 million in payments to Medicare service providers.
Ige then distanced himself from the current Democratic governor and noted his own role in cutting $1 billion in budget requests from the administration.
Hannemann asked Ige about his handling of the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, a network of state-funded hospitals that serve as a public safety net.
Hannemann brought up a December 2009 report that Ige, as Senate Health Committee chair, received, alerting him of the need to fix the HHSC faster. He said the report showed that incremental changes were unlikely to be enough to address the hospitals’ short- and long-term challenges and “unprecedented state deficits.”
Hannemann went on to criticize Ige for not doing more in 2013 to pass a bill that would have created a public-private partnership to help HHSC. He said at that point in time there were private hospitals very interested in seeing the bill pass.
“What happened and why couldn’t you exert your legislative experience and influence to move that bill forward?”
Ige said he helped pass a bill four years ago that allowed public-private partnerships in the Hawaii state hospital system, and that he is proud of his record. But he said at that point the nature of the partnership was unknown.
The Democrat chided Hannemann for not understanding “the demands and the responsibilities” of the Ways and Means chair.
“I had more than 400 bills in conference committee and clearly I can not be driving every single one,” Ige said. “It’s about collaboration, it’s about working with my colleagues.”
Ige said he was aware of all the options to move the health system forward, but lawmakers could not come to an agreement.
Hannemann noted that the bill died.
“You talk about your legislative prowess, you talk about the influence you have in the Legislature that enables you now to be running for governor,” Hannemann said. “Nothing could have been more important than to ensure patient-centered care, especially for those residents on the neighbor islands who are very dependent on state hospitals.”
Aiona used his question to further attack Ige and the state’s handling of the hospital system, but from a different angle.
Aiona specifically called out the Hawaii Government Employees Association — the state’s largest public-sector union, which has endorsed Ige — as the biggest barrier to reform and asked Ige if he would just let the state hospital system go bankrupt.
Ige said he would “absolutely not” let the system go broke, noting how he has more experience than Hannemann or Aiona on this issue.
“Yes, we do have a labor contract problem,” Ige said. “As governor, I would negotiate separate contracts for those employees who work in our public hospital system. “It’s very clear to me that the current contract applying to all state employees does not make sense.”
Ige said that the Lingle-Aiona administration did nothing to fix it, but Aiona said that was because the Legislature “handcuffed” them.
Not all of the disagreements were centered on stage.
Outside the event, just four people turned out on King Street to protest the decision to not include Davis in the debate. Despite the rain and the dark, they stood on the sidewalk and waved signs, including one that read “Open the Media to All Candidates.”
In the Civil Beat poll from early this month, Ige led Aiona 43 percent to 39 percent, with Hannemann at 8 percent and Davis at 2 percent.
A recording of the debate is available on the KITV website.